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How My Day Job Launched My Moviemaking Career: From Barista to Documentarian with Queen Mimi

How My Day Job Launched My Moviemaking Career: From Barista to Documentarian with Queen Mimi

Documentary

My advice to indie moviemakers: Pick your day job wisely. Ironically, it was my day job that became the catalyst for my career both as an actor and director of documentary feature Queen Mimi.

I came to Los Angeles in 2006 to pursue every actor’s dream to make it in Hollywood. I knew that money would run out pretty fast waiting to get discovered, so I needed to find a day job. One day I walked down Montana Avenue in Santa Monica and saw a “hiring” sign at a new coffee shop called Caffè Luxxe. I auditioned for the barista job and got the part.

It was a “real job,” but a real fun one. For the next nine years we’d be making the best coffee in town (yes, way before Intelligentsia) for celebrity actors like Sean Penn, Nicole Kidman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and producers and directors including Ron Howard, Paul Haggis and Marc Forster. We were the place for coffee in town.

Seeing the line form every morning with so many familiar faces from the industry was surreal. My first acting gig in L.A. came from that same line, when the wife of a famous commercial director came up to me and asked me for my headshot. Two weeks later, I got my first SAG job and made about $35,000 in residuals. Life was getting really good.

Another producer offered me a part on the late Patrick Swayze’s last show, The Beast. Then Academy Award-nominated director/producer Jon Avnet wrote a web series and cast me in one of the lead roles. To top it off, a producer offered me a small part in World War Z, one of the biggest blockbusters of 2013, and I flew off to the island of Malta to be on set for two weeks. All of this was like a dream. I never imagined that I would get this much acting work from being a barista! Maybe that’s how much they loved our espresso.

But something else happened at the coffee shop that would change my life. Every morning, when I opened the coffee shop at 5 a.m., I noticed that an elderly woman was starting her day inside the laundromat across the street. It became clear to me that she was spending her nights there and that she was living and working in the laundromat. It got my curiosity going. Who was she? Why was she there? How did she become homeless? I learned that her name was Mimi, that she was in her 80s and that she had been living in the laundromat for 17 years.

Mimi in Santa Monica in Queen Mimi

Mimi in Santa Monica in Queen Mimi

I loved Mimi. Despite her circumstances, she had an incredible spirit, full of optimism, resilience and humor. We became fast friends. I decided that I wanted to capture her inspiring, quirky and fun personality on film. I started doing interviews and followed her around, on and off, for five years. The documentary Queen Mimi was born.

I had no clue what I was doing. I just trusted my gut that there was a story in Mimi. The iPhone 4 had just been launched and the video footage was good enough to work with, so I filmed Mimi before going to work at 4:30 a.m., when Mimi came to the coffee shop, when we went out—just short video vignettes. The more that I discovered about Mimi‘s incredible story and the more bits and pieces started to come together, the more I realized that I needed professional help from friends who had made films and documentaries themselves. They helped me get better cameras and audio kits, and brought more sophisticated shooting skills to the project. I started to feel like an actual filmmaker.

When Mimi told me about her friendship with Zach Galifianakis, I thought, how great it would be if I could interview him for my documentary about Mimi. Of course this presented a major challenge: How does an unknown, first-time filmmaker without any budget get a star like Zach to be in his film? I tried the official channels several times but there was zero traction. Finally, one day I just asked Mimi if she could bring it up with Zach herself. To my great surprise, Zach agreed to an interview right away. Relationships do matter.

At this point, my little videos of Mimi and her friends had turned into 60 hours of footage. That’s when my friend and producer Elliot V. Kotek came on board to help me turn my passion project into a documentary feature. We did a successful Kickstarter campaign, taking advantage of the fact that I knew a lot of people in the Santa Monica community who also knew Mimi to make sure the campaign would catch fire. Having the support of the local community was a major factor in its success. I remember one day telling two caféregulars about the project, and the next day they came in for a cappuccino and left me a check of $10,000. Now that’s a nice tip.

Director Rokah and Mimi in the laundromat where she lives

Director Rokah and Mimi in the laundromat where Mimi lives

Now that Queen Mimi has won several film festival awards and a worldwide distribution deal, a lot of people applaud me for telling Mimi’s story. I was surprised that in Los Angeles, the very city of moviemaking, no one before me had taken up Mimi‘s Cinderella story, which was right in front of their eyes all along. It taught me that my curiosity, one outsider recognizing another from across the street, is what made the difference. We don’t need to invent or reinvent stories—there are so many great ones right under our noses. Pick up a camera and go for it! Everything else will follow. MM

Queen Mimi opens in theaters in May 13, 2016, courtesy of XLrator Media.

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